Nobody Is All Powerful, and Those Who Think They Are Tend to Underestimate the Little Guy
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Are you?”
“Yeah. I think so.”
“Okay. Grandma and Spike?”
“Okay.” James took a breath, blinking his eyes open as Ron helped him stand. The screaming had receded a little, enough that it wasn’t cracking their heads open, but it was still there. James would be hearing it more acutely than the rest of them, Ron figured.
They joined Josephine, who’d gotten up and was being sat in a chair with Estelle’s help. “What is happening, wise one?” Estelle demanded. “Is it some manner of magical attack?”
“Something like that,” James said, leaning on the table in front of Josephine. “The demon is attacking the forest.”
“Most likely,” said the iridescent faery, who also looked shaken, “it is after the power sealed on this side of the forest. It must not be allowed to succeed.”
Ron was listening, he was. But he also knelt beside Esteban. Estelle and Miguel were on either side of him. “He’s dead,” Miguel said, sounding lost.
“I’m sorry,” Ron told him. It sounded hollow, stupid. He hadn’t liked Esteban, but he hadn’t wanted him dead.
“Why would the guardian have killed Esteban?”
“The demon killed him,” Hemlock the faery said, crying, his makeup running. “I’m sorry. I tried to save him but I couldn’t.”
“The fault is not yours, guardian,” Estelle said, also crying. Her expression was hard, but she had tears on her cheeks. “My brother succumbed to a great evil. It must be stopped before it can claim any further lives.”
“The queen must be protected,” said Josephine, getting all their attention. “Your Majesty, I will not allow you to go after the demon. If you die, the forest may well die with you.”
“It is my responsibility to protect this forest. You will not prevent me from…”
“I’ll go,” said James, a pool of music around him. “I’ll deal with the demon. That’s why I’m here.”
“It is not your responsibility to…”
“It is exactly my responsibility,” James told the queen, not seeming to notice how annoyed she looked at being interrupted. “I am the champion of this forest. And I’ve encountered this demon before, I know how to fight it. Stay here where it’s safe.”
“Mom,” Daffodil said, alighting on the table beside the queen. “I’ll go. Hemlock and I will help him. You stay here.”
“Grandma, the demon is probably going to attack her again. You and Spike make sure it doesn’t succeed.”
While Ron tried to figure out when the demon had attacked her the first time, Josephine nodded. “Very well. Be careful. And take Ron with you.”
“Of course,” James said with a small smile. “I wouldn’t dream of not having him there.”
Ron rested his hand on James’s shoulder for just a second.
“I will accompany you as well,” Estelle said, standing straight and stringing a bow. Esteban’s bow. “I must avenge my brother.”
“You will stay here. The clan can’t lose two chiefs in one day,” James told her.
But Estelle shook her head. “What kind of chief am I if I allow such an attack to go unanswered?”
“You can’t help here, Estelle,” James said.
“I am sorry, wise one, but you are mistaken. Miguel, come with me. The rest of you!” she raised her voice to the remaining centaurs. “Stay here and protect the guardian and the wise one. Do not allow a single one of those creatures to enter the hamlet again!”
James closed his eyes, exhaled a long breath. “You’re not going to change her mind,” Ron told him quietly.
“I know. I don’t think any of the centipedes are left in the hamlet,” he said to Josephine. “It was never interested in the centaurs, it was just using them. But stay alert just in case.”
“Don’t worry about me, you foolish boy. Be careful.”
“I will. Come on,” James said, to all of them. And he headed out into the forest. Estelle and Miguel followed them, and Daffodil and Hemlock as well.
Once they’d passed out of sight, Estelle stopped. “Wise one, this is a highly irregular and urgent circumstance.”
“I know,” James said. “We don’t have time to chat. I’m going to open us a path.”
“Yes. Given the extreme circumstances, I will bid you and Ron ride on our backs. It will be faster.”
James looked at her for a second. “Okay. Thank you, Estelle.”
Ron had to help James get up, pushing him onto Estelle’s back, where he stayed with some difficulty. Miguel lowered his hindquarters and let Ron mount him, which he didn’t do with a whole lot of grace. “You will never tell anyone this happened,” Miguel muttered.
“Promise,” said Ron. “I’m sorry about Esteban.”
Miguel just nodded tersely and got up. Hemlock landed on Ron’s shoulder, with Daffodil on James’s. “You two know what you’re doing with this monster, right?”
“James does,” Ron promised. “Don’t worry.”
“I’m very worried.”
“About your friend?”
Hemlock nodded. “About everything, but…I care a lot about Juniper.”
Miguel and Estelle started moving, and it got hard to hear, but Hemlock was right near his ear. “Your boyfriend?” Ron asked, trying to figure out how to hold onto Miguel and settling for holding his shoulders.
“Ex-boyfriend. Does he really have this under control or are you just saying that?” He was looking over at James, who was talking to Daffodil as they rode.
“He’s as close to having it under control as any of us are,” Ron said.
A moment later they came across a frozen centaur. And then another one, broken in half. And another. “Juniper,” Hemlock muttered.
“So many of my compatriots…” Miguel took a deep breath. “Were they all…infected with this creature?”
“Yes,” Hemlock said. “I’m sorry. Juniper must be trying to kill it.”
“Is there no way to kill it without killing the centaurs too?”
“I suspect it depends,” said James from Estelle’s back. “On how long it’s been inside them and how directly it’s been controlling them. I could probably have done it…but I didn’t get here in time.”
“You are not at fault, wise one,” Estelle said, voice hard. “Let us continue.”
And they continued, for ten, fifteen minutes through the path that was opening for them as James convinced the forest to shorten their journey again. Snow and ice crunched underfoot, and leaves blurred past, the ocean of trees and music parting before them as James’s power flowed out from him, changing the shape of the forest to help them move. They passed a few more centaurs, dead. Ron felt like throwing up, but he couldn’t. The forest’s scream had gotten quiet, more of a moan now.
And then, suddenly, there upon a clearing, the trees parting around them. A frozen crescent-shaped pond stood twenty paces in front of them, and on the other side was a free-standing cave. Ron didn’t need James to tell him where they were going. It was obvious even if he couldn’t hear the discordant notes he knew to associate with the demon called Scott coming from inside the cave. He and James dismounted, and Ron pulled his sword. They looked at each other, and went into the cave, the others with them.
The cave was about twice the size of Ron and James’s house on the inside. It was ovular, and too smooth to be natural. The entire back end was taken up by a huge green-black rock that was humming so quietly Ron almost didn’t hear it under everything else. Every surface of the cave, including the rock, had centipedes all over it.
“What is this?” Ron asked.
“The forest’s second power,” James said, looking at the rock. “It’s coming from inside that.”
James nodded. “That’s what the demon wants,” he said. “That power.”
“Bing bing!” The demon’s voice cracked through the cave, and its body materialized just in front of the big stone. “Joy gets ten points.”
“Where’s Juniper?” Daffodil demanded, buzzing between James and the demon.
“Who cares. I’m going to give an evil speech.”
“Whatever’s in there is sealed very heavily,” James told Ron. “The demon can’t get through it. It must have been trying for a while. That’s why it lured us here.”
“Hey!” cawed the demon. “Did you not hear me say I was going to give a speech? I’ve been planning it for at least eighteen consecutive seconds!”
“It’s going to try and kill us and use our blood to break the seal,” James said, slamming his staff on the ground, right into the head of the nearest centipede. “We have to get rid of it before that can happen. I’m sealing the entrance to the cave so it can’t get out.”
“Not quite,” the demon said, forming up again behind James and Ron. Ron took a step back, held up his sword. “I can eat the seal myself. I need your blood to convince the big boy in there to wake up is all. No point in eating him while he’s all dried out. Plus I get you and your buzzy little friends in the exchange, which’ll give me an in to the rest of the faeries. It’s a win all around for me. But then, it usually is.”
“You will not be permitted to…”
“Can it, Starlet. You two are in the way.”
Estelle and Miguel let fly arrows at the demon’s head, which penetrated it. The demon just stood there, smiling, centipedes crawling out and consuming the arrows. “Hey, I can do that too.”
Arrows whizzed, striking both Miguel and Estelle in the back. They fell, crying out in pain. There were two more centaurs standing in the mouth of the cave, nocking new arrows.
“Enough of this.” Daffodil said, landing right on the demon, who started to rot and fall apart. “Hemlock.”
“Yeah,” Hemlock said, flying over to stand on the side of the big rock. The centipedes started to writhe and fall off.
James knelt down, pulling the arrows out of Estelle and Miguel, the music inside him changing to something healing. Ron stood between them and the other two centaurs, both of whom were staring vacantly. He took a breath and rushed at them, stomping on centipedes as he went. The centaurs aimed arrows at him, and Ron waited until the last second, ducking to the side. And he ran at the first one, sword out.
He didn’t even try to defend himself. Ron stabbed him in the chest, blade sinking between the ribs. The centaur shuddered, and fell over. Ron stepped back. “What…” He’d…he’d expected them to at least fight.
The second that that threw him, the feeling of killing someone, gave the other centaur time to nock an arrow at his head. “Shit…”
Two arrows took the centaur in the chest, Miguel and Estelle both firing from the ground. “Thank you,” said James to them, barely audible over all the cacophonous power in the air. “I…”
The demon formed up behind James, an arrow in his hand, and jabbed it into James’s back below the ribcage. “James!”
The forest screamed again, but this time Ron barely heard it even as it ripped him in half. He didn’t realize he’d moved, but he dropped to his knees beside James, sword hitting the cave floor. “James.”
“S-Sorry,” James coughed. “I’ll be fine.” There was blood on his lips. “Run away.”
“I’m not fucking running away,” Ron told him. The cave was starting to glow. “I’m not leaving you here.”
“Can’t bleed anymore here,” James said, shaking his head. “You have to take me somewhere else…if that thing wakes up it’ll be…” He coughed again, eyes shut in pain. The forest was pounding out a fast crescendo that was getting slower.
“Heh,” said the demon. “Looks like I win. Surprise…what the fuck.”
A high-strung note rang through the cave and something bright collided with the demon, staggering it and getting it away from James. Ron didn’t know what to do. He was bleeding a lot. “You’re…you’re going to be…”
“Take me out of here…”
“If I move you, you’ll die.”
James nodded. “I know. The forest is more important. The forest…”
Ron could hear the forest crying. It didn’t want James to die any more than he did. “So help him,” he whispered to it. “Help him.”
The slowing music of the forest…sped up, and it got stronger, and louder. And it filled Ron abruptly, a burning that he recognized. He let it in this time, getting hotter and hotter until he was sure he’d burst into flames. But he didn’t.
And then the heat changed, the notes of it becoming easier for Ron to hear, stronger. They sounded like James. And they sounded like what Ron knew his own music sounded like. And Ron knew what to do.
He put his hand on James’s belly, let the power of the forest flow into him. And though the wound was in James’s back, Ron felt it close up, the damage repairing itself, James’s body going back to normal. And Ron felt relief course through him. He was going to be okay. “James…”
James seemed a bit out of it, struggling to keep his eyes open. “Ron?”
“Now,” said the demon, appearing behind them again. “That’s unexpected. But fine, have it your way, you little sneak. I’ve got enough of his blood to…”
Ron picked up his sword, stood. “Shut up,” he said, swinging at the demon, the power of the forest still inside him. And when his sword touched the thing’s body, it exploded in a storm of flower petals that filled the cave.
“Okay,” the demon said, reforming a few feet away, face contorted into a glare. “This is not funny, you consecutive little…”
A flash erupted through the cave as something was torn from something else, and…all the centipedes froze solid at once, cracked, and began to shatter. The demon’s notes disappeared and the air filled with ice particles. The faeries were shouting, flying over to where Juniper was. But Ron was looking at the stone. The centipedes were falling off in pieces, exposing the glowing rock, which had lines of power that sounded like stringed instruments running up and down it. It was cracking open. Not the stone, but whatever overlayed it.
“What’s going on?” Estelle demanded, but Ron barely heard her.
James was barely conscious. Ron looked down at him, and up at the rock. And he dropped his sword, crouching. He picked up James’s staff. “It’ll be okay,” he promised in a whisper.
The staff glowed with light brass sounds as Ron stood up again, took a step towards the stone. And another one, and another. His footsteps joined in with the music, the rhythm shifting to accommodate him.
Ron reached the stone, looked up at it. The forest was burning inside him, singing all around him. He touched the end of the staff to the stone. “It’s okay,” he said, letting the music of the forest drown out the sound of whatever was inside. “Go back to sleep.”
It fought him, tried to push outwards, but the forest’s music was louder, and soon the cracks faded, healing, and the stone went back to being stone as whatever had been broken by James’s blood was repaired with the forest’s power, and then some, as Ron, not sure what he was doing, wrote a whole other song over top of what was already there, a lullaby to make sure that this thing stayed asleep.
Ron turned around. The centaurs were staring at him. He took a step forward, starting to tell them it was okay as the forest’s power lessened inside him, fading.
He didn’t get those words out, and he didn’t make it another step as he felt himself empty. Ron fell forward. His hand touched James’s as he surrendered consciousness.